It is incredible to think that digital media as we know it today - the interactive, collaborative online environment that most of us already take for granted - only really came into being as part of the dotcom boom in the late 1990s. Before that, the internet was still regarded as a specialised medium, with its use as a communications tool limited to basic email.
In retrospect, what is particularly ironic about that period is that, while the e-commerce companies' business models were predicated on people interacting/buying online, the reality was the great majority of consumers either didn't have access to the internet or simply weren't comfortable using it as an active (as opposed to passive) medium. As such, the first wave of online interactivity ultimately fizzled out through lack of participation.
What a difference a few years makes. The tech industry picked itself up after a short period of post-bubble doldrums, but what really changed was the public's attitude towards the internet. Web 2.0 came into being with the rise of blogging, where the previously private pursuit of diary writing suddenly moved into the public domain. Yes, most blogs were utterly trivial, but that was partly the point - a medium now existed where anybody could instantly publish unmediated thoughts and opinions, and other people could comment on them.
This is where the worldwide digital conversation we are still having today really began. Traditional media have gone from gatekeepers to participants (and occasionally bystanders), with user-generated content and comment increasingly playing an important role in news reporting and opinion forming. Most importantly, the way in which companies communicate with customers has changed forever, with the media only one channel of many.
A decade on from the original dotcom spike, we are now at the start of a new tech boom - greentech. While the cost of accessing information has gone down, the cost of energy has gone up, particularly in terms of the damage we are doing to the planet. Climate change is one of the most hotly debated topics across the blogosphere and social networking sites - how will the way the digital media landscape has changed affect the way the emerging greentech industry reaches out to its key stakeholders and target audiences?
A major difference from ten years ago is the way the agenda is being set - while the dotcom era could be viewed as a classic case of a product in search of a market, greentech is being driven by a clear and present issue that affects everyone. The audience is there already and directly involved in creating demand for specific micro-generation products and through a broader desire to influence policy by urging governments to invest more in renewable energy.
What is clear is that not only do greentech companies and their PR representatives need to engage directly with potential customers and partners via Twitter, blogs and online commentary, but they also need to listen closely to the conversations that people are already having in their space. The opinions and ideas generated by diverse digital communities are a tremendous resource that wasn't available to the dotcom pioneers - they had no way of knowing what was going to succeed, which is why most failed. As such, it is vital that the greentech industry does not waste this resource.
Too often, brands have regarded social media as just another advertising or marketing channel, failing to realise how empowering it is for user communities. Greentech companies cannot afford to make this mistake. They must listen, learn and develop products that address the concerns of a connected world facing an uncertain future.
- Louise Stewart-Muir is joint managing director at Say Communications.